The Clinton Herald, Clinton, Iowa

September 9, 2013

Marquis Childs, Journalist

By Gary Herrity
Special to the Herald

Clinton has had so many exceptional people; we should start a Clinton Hall of Fame. Readers could probably think of a dozen nominations very quickly. One such person would be world-renowned journalist Marquis Childs, who was born in Lyons. Young Marquis went out into the world in the 1920’s, lived a wonderful life and wrote extensively about Clinton.

It all started in the north end of Clinton in 1903. Son of a prominent Clinton lawyer who dearly wanted him to become a doctor, Marquis attended the State University of Iowa. He was well on his way to medical school, when he suddenly rebelled and transferred to the University of Wisconsin, taking a degree in journalism. Later, he returned to S.U.I., received his master’s degree, and also taught there.

First, however, young Marquis Childs went to work for the St. Louis Post Dispatch and earned his stripes as a correspondent and columnist. He spent a year in Sweden doing research about their government and, in 1936, published Sweden: The Middle Way. A sequel, Sweden: The Middle Way on Trial, was published in 1980. He was a war correspondent and interviewed presidents and international notables, writing one of his books, Witness to Power, about those experiences.

Childs later moved to the Washington Post and wrote a column called, “Washington Calling” that was syndicated in 140 newspapers! The pinnacle of his career was getting a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1969, the first such award given.

Marquis Childs spoke in Clinton on March 25, 1976 for the Bi-centennial. A 1918 graduate of Lyons High School, he remained impressed by the education he received there. His family lived at 1728 Pershing and his cousin, Superintendent of Schools’ Secretary Sarah Marquis, remembered him as a charming and handsome man who could entertain ANYone! Childs said he remembered Clinton developing from “three cars and a few paved streets.”

His parents were Republicans, but his writings leaned to a more liberal bent. In 1976, he stated, “The Clinton Herald was the Republican newspaper,” (which has been denied), “and across the street was The Advertiser, the Democrat newspaper.” Young Marquis was interested early-on with the newspaper business and rued the day that people went from “studying a newspaper for half a day, and now (1976) only read it for 30 minutes!” He recognized that television would become a powerful new medium, but “Someone should analyze the psychological impact” of it, he prophetically opined during his riveting speech to an audience of 300 at Vernon Cook Theatre.

Indeed, the handsome and articulate Childs appeared often on television in its early days. He wrote several books and hundreds of magazine articles and, at one time, his column appeared three times weekly across the country.

A proponent of civil rights, he warned that journalists must resist the ‘heady wine’ of proximity to power and refrain from trying to shape world affairs. It jeopardizes the integrity, the independence of the observer-reporter.”

Marquis Childs was an adventurer/writer who could have traveled many literary paths. He loved the River like Mark Twain and was in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, as was Ernest Hemingway. Childs chose to write in newspapers rather than use his mighty skills in the lucrative field of novel-writing, although he wrote a few.

Writing in The "Lincoln Mercury Times” in 1951, he said: “Sawdust Town, there was contempt and pride in the name; in the booming, roaring, shrieking mills that from the early spring into late fall worked 12 to 14-hour shifts, the great mountains of sawdust piling higher and higher. And the raw, sweet-smelling lumber was shipped out in trainload after trainload to the west. The River was carpeted in the early spring with logs, and neither anxious mothers nor vigilant raftsmen could keep boys of the town from swimming and diving off those rafts. It was dangerous sport, because if you slipped under that brown carpet of logs, it was ten-to-one you would never come up alive.” --- (Sawdust Town, 1951)

Elsewhere, he wrote, “Early pioneers began to realize that God had been indeed very good to them. To the north, incredible stands of pine --- so large that man could never exhaust them (but they did); to the west was a treeless prairie, with railroads beginning to push in; and the river was at their door, a free highway for the northern lumber. In the sawmills, men were ripped in two, leaving the undertaker a very difficult job. On the river, raftsmen fell off and were scarcely missed, life being so cheap compared to the unbelievable value of logs.” The raftsmen were called “roosters” because they roosted anywhere they could on their dangerous cargo. Mugs, Bat-Eye, and Mole were nicknames and all that men were known as when they signed on for their one-way trip and enough money for a drunk at the end of it. If married, the rooster had to take off all his clothes before entering the house, so that the sun and air could delouse their clothes.” (River Town, 1934)

“I remember those winters when the Mississippi was frozen so hard and so deep that on a clear, sunny, below zero day you could hear it crack as though a giant hand had stirred in the frozen depth. We used to skate for miles up the river, following remote sloughs, skirting behind willow-covered islands.”

”Many of my generation left town. We had to go out into the bigger world and find excitement and challenge. I sometimes feel that we may have made a mistake. I have a feeling that most of us never really put down roots. Those who stayed behind do seem to belong. When I go back, I feel that they have continued to live in a rhythm that is natural and right.”

As a young journalist, he was once sued for libel because he maligned Hannibal, Missouri for being a tourist trap. Thus, when he wrote of Clinton in “The Town I Like,” he was careful to obscure all names. Yet, some 1935 locals who read it told him, “You better wait awhile before you come back!” Now, of course, we’re thrilled when anyone famous mentions our beloved town.

Marquis Childs became the “dean” of the Washington Press Corps and was highly- regarded. He interviewed the famous and infamous as a “man of the world,” yet carried Clinton/ Lyons in his heart. He said, “We all thought our town was boring and limiting, but we were mistaken.” Childs was considered an expert on Mark Twain and, just before his 80th birthday, completed a life-long work, Mighty Mississippi: Biography of a River. It has been praised as having lyrical passages rivaling those found in Twain’s classic, Huckleberry Finn.